In March, the Cuban government released the last of 75 prisoners arrested in spring 2003 for acting as U.S. agents and receiving material aid from the U.S. government. The prisoner release was the largest in Cuba for decades, the result of negotiations with Spanish officials and the Roman Catholic Church. It also marked a turning point for the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, an activist group made up of the imprisoned dissidents’ female relatives. The group focused its activities in Havana, where its members, wearing all white and carrying gladiolas, marched silently through the streets every week.
Since the 2003 crackdown, known as Black Spring by the dissidents and their supporters, the group has enjoyed wide international media attention, sympathy, and support. They were awarded the 2005 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament, and in 2007, Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero wrote a letter of support to the Damas.1 With the group’s permission, the organization Spanish Solidarity With Cuba created a website (damasdeblanco.com), and in 2010 a group of Cuban exiles in Switzerland launched a signature drive to nominate the group for the Nobel Peace Prize (the effort is still ongoing).2
More controversially, however, the group has enjoyed robust support from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The chief of mission and other section officials have openly accompanied the Damas on their marches and spoken approvingly of their agenda. The Cuban government, meanwhile, has charged that the Damas de Blanco were created and financially sustained by the U.S. government as a means of destabilizing Cuba and preparing the way for regime change. A 2010 editorial in the state-run Granma Internacional newspaper, for example, accused the Damas of “lending themselves to the enemy’s game while supporting themselves with dollars stained with Cuban blood.”3
Although it is unclear if the United States had a role in creating the organization, classified diplomatic cables released in August by WikiLeaks show that the U.S. Interests Section requested funding for the Damas de Blanco and that working with the group figures prominently in the section’s activities. In one cable from 2008, the section requested on the Damas’ behalf a one-year grant of $5,000 from the Human Rights Defender Fund, overseen by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the State Department. Of that sum, $3,600 was earmarked for prison visits (transportation and supplies), $1,000 to support for prisoners’ dependents, and $400 for medicines and medical supplies.4
“The Damas have received funding in the past,” the cable noted, “but we do not have any details on the sources or the amounts.” It is not known whether the request was approved, but if it was, the women could be open to prosecution in Cuba under Law 88, which makes receiving U.S. government funding a crime. It remains to be seen if any of the Damas will be charged. In any case, the leaked cable has threatened to undermine the group’s credibility.
Beyond funding, the U.S. government has also provided moral support. Michael Parmly, the chief of mission at the interests section from 2005 to 2008, was particularly concerned with supporting the Damas. In one cable from June 2007, titled “How to Shatter a Castro-phile’s Arguments,” Parmly provided a “distillation,” in Q&A format, “of the best of our briefings and responses to questions about Cuba, usually from audiences that are opposed to U.S. policy towards Cuba.” To the question “Aren’t Cuban dissidents who receive aid from Miami pawns of U.S. policy?” Parmly recommended answering that “the Cuban democratic opposition,” including the Damas, is a “home-grown” dissident movement, one to which the United States is “proud to provide assistance.”5
Parmly regularly reported on the state of the Damas’ morale and his efforts to boost it. For example, on Mothers’ Day in 2006, he passed out roses to the 15 or so Damas attending Sunday mass at Santa Rita church, where they began each of their weekly marches.6 The Damas were also treated to video conferences at the interests section with U.S. political figures like Laura Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.7 Parmly also held out hope that the Damas would be a unifying force on the island. “Given some of the rivalries in the democratic opposition, the Damas recognize that they are the one group, representing the one cause that unites everybody: ‘Release the Political Prisoners,’ ” Parmly wrote to the State Department on March 19, 2007.8
With such close attention from the U.S. Interests Section, the recent revelation that the Damas de Blanco were infiltrated by a Cuban security agent is not surprising. In February, Carlos Serpa Maceira revealed himself to have been an undercover agent of the Cuban government who had posed for 10 years as an independent journalist for Radio Martí, the U.S.-based propaganda station aimed at Cuban civil society, as well as a contributor to several blogs and websites. As the director of the Union of Free Journalists in Cuba, he worked closely with the Damas and was sometimes referred to as their spokesman. Since coming out as an agent, he has condemned members of the group for receiving U.S. funding and fabricating reports of injury and harassment by Cuban security agents.
Yet part of the Damas’ strategy of civil disobedience seems precisely to have been to provoke a heavy-handed response from the Cuban police in hopes of demonstrating to the world how draconian the government was. Although scuffles with counter-demonstrators and the police have taken place, none of the Damas have been seriously hurt during their demonstrations. But they have been periodically harassed on the streets and taken into custody by officials “for their own protection.” Most often they are prevented from traveling by pro-government crowds, whether to attend events at the U.S. Interests Section or a different city. Sometimes Damas are met at their house or in their neighborhood and blocked from leaving; sometimes they are stopped during one of their marches. In 2007, on the fourth anniversary of the Black Spring arrests, the Damas were surrounded by more than 100 people, some of whom were thought to be State Security agents. The Damas were harassed but not arrested.
Few were more attentive to these developments, and their potential to discredit the Cuban government, than U.S Interests Section officials. Commenting on the 2007 incident, the section noted that the Cuban state agents “appeared to rein in the more violence-minded militants.” “If accurate,” the cable continued, “this would suggest that the [Cuban government] recognizes the inherent danger to the regime, in the event that a Dama were seriously injured.”9
In response to claims that the Cuban state has abused the Damas, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the U.S. government in 2008 of “fabricating and promoting these and other counterrevolutionary provocations as well as the subsequent media campaigns launched against Cuba.”10 It identified the Damas as “one of the groupings that have been particularly sponsored, backed, and financed by the US Interest Section,” maintaining that the group had been chosen by president George W. Bush “as a spearhead against Cuba” who “receive logistic support for their counterrevolutionary work.”
“They frequently meet with the officials of that Interest Section, and their most notorious ringleaders have earned the ‘privilege’ of receiving direct attention from Michael Parmly, the chief of that office,” said Felipe Pérez Roque, then Cuban foreign affairs minister.11
While the Damas have received overwhelming international attention, it is difficult to ascertain how well-known they are on the island. Some Cubans will have seen them marching, but with media on the island controlled by the state, it is difficult to establish. The U.S. Interests Section was also interested to know the prominence of Cuban dissident figures in their own country. Over a one-month period in 2008, it surveyed adults applying for refugee status and asked them to identify various public figures on the island. Seven names of dissidents were mixed in among 13 other names. Within this group of 236 people (who might be expected to be more aware of and sympathetic toward Cuban dissidents), only 16% percent of respondents recognized the name of Damas leader Laura Pollán.12 In September the Associated Press informally polled 30 Cubans and found that Pollán fared roughly the same, with her name recognized by 17% of respondents.13
Few could fail to notice that the Damas de Blanco patterned their organization after the Latin American mothers’ groups whose children had been “disappeared” by military dictatorships, reproducing a now familiar collective performance of feminine grief. In the context of political conflict and repression, Latin American women have long organized on behalf of imprisoned, persecuted, disappeared, or murdered family members. The Chilean Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared and the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are the most famous. Both formed in the 1970s in response to the brutal murders and disappearances of their sons and daughters at the hands of their respective authoritarian regimes. But there have been others as well, including the CoMadres of El Salvador, the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs of Nicaragua, the Grupo de Apoyo Mutual of Guatemala, and several in Colombia, including the Mujeres de Negro and the Mothers of Soacha.
Following in the footsteps of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Damas have effectively played into the narrative of suffering, apolitical women who are propelled into the public sphere on behalf of their loved ones. They have successfully used gendered understandings of suffering, victimization, and femininity to carry their story, and the narrative has been largely effective because members are women-only. However beneath this innocence lies a more complex and political organization. Most immediately, while they claim to be autonomous they have readily enjoyed the steady support and mentoring of the U.S. government.
They have also attempted to remain neutral with regard to political parties or factions within the dissident community, insisting they are “not political players.”14 But despite their “non-political” affirmations, the Damas’ leaders have staked out political positions. Dissidents on the island, for example, disagree over the definition of political prisoners, and the Damas de Blanco leaders have insisted that a distinction be made between peaceful dissidents who are imprisoned and those who have taken violent measures.15 More generally, amid the power struggles between various political figures vying to lead the fractured opposition, the Damas appear quite effective and influential.
Meanwhile, the Damas have served as a cohesive and highly photogenic anti-Castro organization, immensely more sympathetic than the more overtly political figures. This explains why they have been so central in the past eight years to the U.S. efforts to bring down Castro. The U.S. government has drawn attention to the Damas’ apparent similarity to other women’s human rights groups in the region. In 2005, Roger Noriega, then the assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, testified before Congress that the Damas’ protests echoed “an important symbolic gesture that was done in such countries as Argentina and Chile during their repressive eras.”16
One of the founders of the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Hebe de Bonafini, strongly rejected such comparisons in an interview posted on Rebelion.org in 2005. “Our white kerchief symbolizes life,” Bonafini said, “while these women . . . represent death.”17 Bonafini later clarified that she had been referring to the Damas’ more hard-line supporters in Miami, who in March 2010 openly marched with Luis Posada Carriles, the notorious terror suspect wanted in Cuba and Venezuela for the 1976 Cubana airline bombing.18 Nonetheless, the original interpretation of Bonafini’s statement continues to circulate.
Although the Damas have borrowed much of their repertoire from the Southern Cone women’s groups, mobilizations like theirs are not wholly imported. Nor are they limited to anti-Castro politics. In 1957–58, members of Cuba’s July 26 Movement, the rebel group founded by Fidel Castro, organized mothers’ marches in the city of Santiago de Cuba in response to the Batista dictatorship’s killing of Frank País and other rebels and suspected rebels. The marches triggered police repression against the women, which reportedly appalled the new U.S. ambassador and his wife, who witnessed the police attacks.19
Not long afterward, in 1960, a CIA shell group called the Democratic Revolutionary Front seemed to respond in kind. It organized the Caravan of Sorrow—in which a group of 62 Cuban women exiles rode chartered buses from Miami to New York City, stopping along the way in selected cities to march in black mourning dress to publicize “the death of freedom in Cuba.”20 The CIA reported to the incoming Kennedy administration that media coverage of this “special propaganda operation” had been excellent. The strategy was used again two decades later, when the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy funded the anti-Sandinista organization M-22, composed of political prisoners’ mothers in Nicaragua.
It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the Damas’ grievances as no more than a cynical attempt to destabilize the Cuban government. The members are brave women with political ideals that bring them into opposition against the Cuban system of governance. Moreover, it is difficult to have loved ones in prison, whatever the reason, and it is not surprising that the predominantly male dissidents would have distraught female relatives who strongly share their opposition to the Castro government and who feel motivated to press for their release. That said, this particular mobilization of suffering mothers has enjoyed the support of the most powerful country on earth, whose long-standing objective in Cuba is to overthrow the revolutionary state.
This is among the most important differences between the Cuban Damas and the Latin American groups they have borrowed from: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marched for years in relative obscurity and isolation, ignored by the U.S. Embassy and others. Other differences include the comparably small scale of the Cuban crackdown and the qualitative difference in the offenses denounced by the women in question. The 75 Black Spring prisoners have all been released, many of them exiled in Spain after almost a decade in prison. In contrast, tens of thousands of Argentines, Chileans, Salvadorans, and others suffered painful deaths and torture at the hands of Latin America’s military dictatorships, which in some cases imprisoned, raped, and killed members of the mothers’ organizations themselves for their activism.
The Damas’ critics have pointedly emphasized the group’s differences with other women’s groups. For example, a video produced by Cuba Información, a Spanish Basque organization dedicated to contesting the “media blockade” against Cuba, compares the Damas with the Colombian Mothers of Soacha.21 The latter group comprises the relatives of young men from Soacha, a poor neighborhood of Bogotá, who were killed by the Colombian armed forces in what is known as the “false positives” scandal, which came to light in 2008: Colombian soldiers were routinely killing civilians and passing them off as guerrilla casualties in order to inflate body counts and secure promotions. As the video’s voice-over makes clear, the Mothers of Soacha struggle in relative obscurity, in marked contrast to the international press coverage and U.S. government support enjoyed by the Damas de Blanco. Without the media spotlight, the Mothers of Soacha and their families have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, and even death threats in efforts to stop their campaign.22
Meanwhile, the Cuban government, long adept at battling the United States on the propaganda front, has its own group of aggrieved women to counter the Damas: the wives of the Cuban Five. Visitors to Cuba in the last decade will likely have noticed the heavy state propaganda in tourist sectors concerning the Five Heroes, as they are known in Cuba. In 2001, the five men were sentenced to long prison terms in the U.S. District Court of southern Florida for conspiring to commit espionage against the United States. According to the five and the Cuban government, they were in the United States monitoring anti-Castro Cubans to prevent terrorism on the island. Their cause is perhaps most effectively championed by two of their grieving wives, who have been denied visas to visit their husbands and who regularly meet with visitors to Cuba and travel internationally to press their case.
The release of their imprisoned loved ones robbed the Damas of their raison d’être and also removed dissident voices from the island, with many dissident families going into exile. The members remain active, however, including Pollán, who has vowed to continue.23 But if the group is now attempting to go beyond its original mission, it remains unclear what that will entail; as of this writing, the Damas’ website still proclaims the group to be “fighting for the liberation of their loved ones.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International reports that state forces continue to harass remaining dissidents and their families.24 The Damas still march, although a bulk of the protest has moved to the other end of the island, where the Damas of Santiago de Cuba, together with a new group of women who call themselves Damas de Apoyo, or Support Ladies, are leading the way. And they are doing so with the help of some powerful friends.
Lorraine Bayard de Volo teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Colorado–Boulder. She is the author of Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs: Gender Identity Politics in Nicaragua, 1979–1999 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
1. Michael E. Parmly, “Zapatero Writes to Damas de Blanco,” U.S. Interests Section cable 07HAVANA636, July 3, 2007, released by WikiLeaks.
2. Buddy Williams, “ ‘Ladies in White’ Website Launched,” U.S. Interests Section, 06HAVANA23611, December 18, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.
3. Granma Internacional, “We Will Defend the Truth With Our Ethics and Our Principles” (editorial), April 8, 2010, available at granma.cu.
4. Jonathan Farrar, “Request for HRDF Funds for Cuban Organizations,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 08HAVANA613, July 31, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.
5. Michael E. Parmly, “Subject: How to Shatter a Castro-Phile’s Arguments,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 07HAVANA617, June 27, 2007, released by Wikileaks.
6. Michael Parmly, “Mother of All Marches by Cuba’s ‘Ladies In White’ ” U.S. Interests Section cable, 06HAVANA10271, May 15, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.
7. Jonathan Farrar, “Damas Tell First Lady About Hurricane Devastation,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 08HAVANA814, October 16, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.
8. Michael E. Parmly, “Emotional March 18 for Damas De Blanco,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 07HAVANA271, March 29, 2007; Michael E. Parmly, “Cuban Activists Reaching Out to Nam Participants,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 06HAVANA17126, Aug. 30, 2006.
9. Michael E. Parmly “Cuban Thugs Confront ‘Ladies in White’ ,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 07HAVANA285, March 21, 2007; Michael E. Parmly, “Dissidents Push Envelope While Regime Adjusts,” U.S. embassy cable, 07HAVANA965, October 3, 2007.
10. Felipe Pérez Roque, “Statement Issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cuba,” April 23, 2008, available at cubaminrex.cu.
12. James L. Williams, “Informal Poll Of Refugee Applicants Shows Woeful,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 08HAVANA542, July 9, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.
13. Paul Haven and Andrea Rodriguez, “Cuba’s Opposition Plots a Fresh Course,” Associated Press, September 23, 2011.
14. Michael Parmly, “Cuban Activist Ferrer Prepares Call for Plebiscites,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 06HAVANA16867, August 23, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.
15. Michael Parmly, “Cuba Human Rights Roundup August 18, 2006,” U.S. Interests Section cable, 06HAVANA16609, August 18, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.
16. Roger Noriega, “Year Two of Castro’s Brutal Crackdown on Dissidents,” statement, Joint Hearing Before Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives, 109th Cong. (March 3, 2005), 33.
17. Salim Lamrani, “Las llamadas Damas de Blanco defienden el terrorismo de Estados Unidos y las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo simbolizamos el amor a nuestros hijos asesinados por tiranos impuestos por Estados Unidos,” Rebelion.org, June 28, 2005.
18. Cubaencuentro, “Hebe de Bonnafini niega saber quiénes son las Damas de Blanco,” December 22, 2005, available at cubaencuentro.com.
19. Armando Hart, Aldabonazo: Inside the Cuban Revolutionary Underground 1952–1958 (Pathfinder Press, 2004), 187.
20. Central Intelligence Agency, “Briefing of Secretary of State Designate Rusk,” January 22, 1961, p. 10, obtained by the author through a July 19, 2007, FOIA request.
21. “Damas de Blanco (Cuba) y Madres de Soacha (Colombia): doble rasero y cinismo mediático,” youtube.com/watch?v=HNlBmuPZMV0.
22. Amnesty International, “Seeking Justice: The Mothers of Soacha,” January 22, 2010.
23. Haven and Rodriguez, “Cuba’s Opposition Plots a Fresh Course.”
24. Amnesty International, “Women Protestors Must Not Be Silenced,” August 25, 2011, available at amnesty.org.
Read the rest of NACLA's September/October 2011 issue: "The Politics of Human Rights."